First Blush VP Debate React
October 12th, 2012

I watched the debate last night in the isolation chamber in an attempt to avoid the inherent Heisenberg problems created by Twitter. I still haven’t read any other reactions to it (save one tweet by John Hinderaker) so the following are really just first blush impressions:

* As you can tell from the image to the right, I really, really like Paul Ryan. He’s impressive and admirable. He’d make a great vice president. Might even make a great president. Certainly, if I could choose from the four guys on the ballot this year, he’d be my first choice.

* That said, I thought he had a catastrophically bad night.

* He did a couple things well: He stayed calm and unflappable in the face of a constant, belligerent assault. He was much better on foreign policy than anyone might have expected. His closing statement was powerful and genial; the last five minutes of the debate were his best.

* On nearly every other score, my impression was that Ryan got crushed. He looked and sounded like a lightweight (which, to be clear, he’s not). His tone on offense was grating and tinny. His demeanor on defense weak. He looked out of his depth at every turn. He had no grasp of the political theater inherent in a debate.

Example: In talking about Syria, Biden backed Ryan into a corner where it made him appear as though he was advocating U.S. troop deployment (which he clearly wasn’t). Biden then made him look like an opportunist by asking, What would you do differently? And the only thing Ryan could do was talk retroactively about what words Romney would have used in talking about Assad. Pressed again by Biden, Okay, but going forward, what would you do differently? Ryan had absolutely nothing to say.

That pattern was replicated all night long. The net effect was, for me, the impression that here’s a nice young man who is in no way ready for the big leagues. (I’m not saying this is the objective truth, mind you–see above. But as Clint once said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”)

* Biden was an incredibly effective hatchet-man. Think for a moment about his strategic goals for the night: No one changes their votes based on a VP debate, so what Biden wanted to do was stop the momentum from the first debate cold by bludgeoning Ryan and Romney and preventing Ryan from getting any traction which might have allowed him to stand up as the forward-looking, serious partner to the project Romney presented last week.

To my eyes, he accomplished this goal. Biden’s performance doesn’t move the polls, but it stops the emerging narrative of Romney-Ryan being on an unstoppable rise and sets the table for Obama in next week’s debate. The analogy which leapt to mind was Biden as a middle-reliever: He came in with bases loaded and no outs and then retired the side. You couldn’t ask for much more from him.

* Was Biden dishonest and unpleasant? Absolutely. Just to pick one example, look at his outrageous answer on the HHS mandate. But part of Biden’s strength is his ability to spout nonsense with perfect conviction. Consider his answer on his Catholicism and abortion. Again, it was maddeningly dishonest. But as a piece of political theater–he slowed down, cast his eyes toward the desk somberly, dropped his voice a register–it was fantastically effective.

As for Biden’s decision to constantly laugh at, mock, and interrupt Ryan, it struck me that he turned the dial up too far. Did he come across like a jerk? To Republicans, sure. And maybe even to some swing voters. But he wasn’t there to make friends. If you’re on the fence about voting for Obama after the disaster of the last four years, 90 minutes of mean Joe Biden aren’t going to push you over the line. Biden was there to stop the current narrative about Romney’s debate win and return to the mission of disqualifying Romney. To my mind, mission accomplished.

* Frankly, Biden’s over-the-top aggro is the only thing that saved Ryan from what could have been a career-ending night.

* Martha Raddatz was an utter embarrassment. I can’t tell if she was more Tim Donaghy or Earl Hebner. She was both unfair (rescuing Biden whenever he came near to danger and hounding Ryan without remorse) and stupid (turning a policy question about abortion into a “personal story” question about faith). If she ever moderates a presidential-level debate again, it’ll be a scandal.

* All of that said, I’ll be interested to go and see what the CW is.

  1. Gabriel October 12, 2012 at 11:26 am

    I only heard part of the foreign policy bit but I thought Biden was very effective. He had a very clear and appealing position whereas Ryan seemed to be trying to get to both Biden’s right (embolden our enemies) and left (get out) simultaneously with the effect being incoherent opportunism and Monday morning quarterbacking the tactics without a coherent alternative strategy. Of course this reflects underlying fractures in the Republican coalition.

    Also, I’m pretty comfortable with how my prediction turned out.

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  3. Galley Reader JH October 12, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I always thought your Paul Ryan picture was some kind of putdown – aren’t you comparing Ryan to Harvey Dent, who becomes a villain? And doesn’t Harvey Dent turn into a symbol for the ignorant citizens of Gotham, who don’t realize that Batman is the real hero?

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  5. Ben October 13, 2012 at 10:53 am

    JH, I always took it to be an endorsement but also one that spells impending tragedy. Ryan is the hero we need and want but the forces of evil may destroy him.

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  7. James O'Gara October 13, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    I can’t believe Biden talked about his wife dying in a car crash for the thousandth time.

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  9. Matthew King October 14, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Brother, lay off the hyperbole. You’re either listening to too much sports radio (“I’ll say it. Dwight Howard’s performance last night was the G.O.A.T.”) or reading too many comic books (“Worst. Episode. Evar.”)

    “Catastrophically bad”? “[W]ould have been career-ending”? You sound like Andrew Sullivan. And considering the response from outside your isolation chamber, you missed the mark utterly. There is no “Heisenberg effect” of Twitter. Politics is not practiced alone. It is meant to change upon contact with other people, and it is otherwise meaningless.

    Paul Ryan is a practiced explainer — indeed, he is highly skilled in presenting the conservative case by making (deliberately) complicated issues digestible to low-information voters. He was clearly waylaid by Biden, the veteran obfuscater of four decades’ experience. Mitt Romney also underestimated his opponents some forty debates ago, and only two weeks ago did we see the improvement that attends experience. Ryan naïvely assumed his explanatory gifts would carry the day, rather than being prepared to force the opportunity to explain over Biden’s rather surprising raspberries, interruptions, and fart noises. He was not as prepared for a taping of Crossfire with Martha Raddatz as affable old Joe.

    But the bottom line is, Ryan is introducing himself to the nation. As a loyal number two, his job above all others is to promote the top of the ticket, which he did consistently (and in contrast to Biden, who mentioned Obama once). His primary goal on Thursday was to not screw up and give the media material to chew on until Tuesday. His next most important goal was to present himself as relaxed and confident in his ability to radiate competence. In the few moments between Biden’s overbearing slapstick, Ryan showed a command of the arguments. Even the most “catastrophically bad” performances by veep candidates amount to nothing (cf. Bentsen-Quayle; Gore-Quayle-Stockdale). The goal is to demonstrate a baseline competence. Hardcore DailyKosian critics on the left could not say Ryan betrayed a “catastrophic[]” incompetence.

    No, the problem with your one-man echo-chamber — particularly with a politician for whom you personally have the very highest of expectations — is that you will tend to hyper-focus on not just weaknesses but the perceived weaknesses of your champion, imagining what your worst opponent might think of what you’re both watching. “That won’t sound good to women in the 30-45 demo.” “Ohh, don’t say that! You’re playing right into the stereotype they have about theocons!”

    This is meta-politics, the disease of our age. Our opinions are not based on the substance of the disagreement but rather how we perceive those opinions will be received by other people. “I agree with his pro-life policy, sure, but I’m not sure if it will poll well with the suburban housewives outside Philly.” Everyone is a pundit now. No one talks substance, they talk process. You have fallen into this trap.

    The great James Bowman has been banging the drum about the emptiness of meta-politics for year, but it seems there isn’t much audience for media theory. Too bad, because he is one of the few who gets it:

    It is malpractice to pundificate without having read Bowman’s book, Media Madness.